A relatively conventional David Vs. Goliath tale, Erin Brockovich is leant added depth, poignancy and confidence by three key elements: Susannah Grant’s witty, engaging and intelligent script; Steven Soderbergh’s disciplined and economical direction; and a career-best, multi-award winning turn from Julia Roberts, for whom the project was intended at the outset as a big-budget star vehicle.
Roberts stars as the eponymous hero, a working class, unemployed mother who after losing a lawsuit following a car accident talks herself into a job with the law firm headed by Ed Masry (Albert Finney), the small time lawyer who failed to secure compensation on her behalf. Though lacking formal training, Brockovich begins investigating a case in the desert town of Hinckley where the inhabitants have been stricken with a series of life-threatening illnesses. Could the Pacific Gas and Electric Company be to blame and with the residents of the town on board what would the result be of a class-action lawsuit against the company?
For Soderbergh, who described the project as ‘an aggressively linear reality-based drama about a twice married mother of three living at a very low income level’, it was another opportunity to display his ability to work within both the constraints of a genre picture and the Hollywood studio system. It also presented the chance to use a star’s charisma, and the potential audience stars attract, to gently subvert the image and deliver a mainstream film that was entertaining, engaging and intelligent. Extending a high degree of respect to the potentially manipulative and cloying real-life material and to his characters, Soderbergh delivered a film that scored with audiences, critics and award juries alike. Erin Brockovich enhanced the mainstream success and credibility that had come Soderbergh’s way following Out of Sight and The Limey and firmly closed the door on the post-sex, lies and videotape wilderness years. Soderbergh, a workaholic since retired but now working prolifically again, followed the film up with Traffic, and found that his main competition for a Best Director Oscar was himself. He lost for Erin Brockovich but triumphed with Traffic.
The film does display some of the motifs that recur in earlier works from the director, namely an interest in the sinister nature of big corporations, female independence and the individual and collective capacity for self-awareness and learning. But it’s evident that Soderbergh curbed his experimental bent, adopting a less –is-more approach in which any stylistic quirks took a back seat to the naturalism of the performances. And what performances they are.
Roberts competed a clean sweep of Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe victories and there is a career-making appearance from Aaron Eckhart as Brockovich’s unconventional love interest. Finney, who also appears in Traffic, is often over-looked in the role of Ed Masry, which is perhaps understandable given the centrality of Roberts and the fact that this is Erin’s tale. Finney does however help anchor the film and arguably provides a note of realism. It’s the kind of character role that he has carried off with aplomb in later years and a brief period in which he was very much in demand in America as a supporting actor. Finney received the last of his Academy Award nominations but found some solace with a Best Male Supporting Actor at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. I regard this as amongst the son of Salford’s finest later performances, one bettered perhaps only by his vengeful father in Lumet’s superlative Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead.
Words by Jason Wood, Artistic Director Film, HOME